In my defense, I didn’t set out to target carp with my fly rod yesterday evening. The previous night I was out in the kayak around the same time with the dogs and there were bass jumping all over the place. So this time I left the dogs at home, grabbed a box of poppers, my 5-weight Hardy fly rod, a couple of iced beers and launched around 5:30.
The river was pretty low and slow, so I just cruised around, settling in behind boulders where the eddy kept me in place to fish. I caught my first smallmouth in the new Native Slayer, got a crappy photo of it and a few more small ones. Nothing special. Although I did see a very large smallmouth among some underwater logs around a bridge piling. But the river was getting squeezed between the pilings, quickening the current, and I could not figure out how to anchor myself safely to take a shot at him. Special fish know safe places to live.
So I moved on upstream, switched colors on my fly and caught my biggest smallie of the day on a white popper, but he was probably no more than ten inches. I was just releasing him when over near the bank I saw a massive carp jump all the way out of the water and splash down. I don’t know why they do this, maybe someone could comment if they know. They’re not feeding on surface bugs like trout. Someone once told me they do it to knock parasites off of their scales. I paddled over to investigate. The terrain underwater changed as I got closer to the edge, and not in the way I expected. The underwater grasses that are quite heavy in the rest of the river were not present along this edge. There were big boulders, deep holes, no grass, and the water was fairly still and much murkier.
But in the shadows I could see cruising carp. Big, cruising carp. I even saw one tail up, presumably feeding, in the shallows right along the bank.
I was ill equipped to fish for carp with a light 5-weight and poppers. But I had a lone, peach wooly bugger that was on the rod when I put it in the truck. So I took off the popper and tied on the bugger. I looked for movement, mostly just vague shadows but every now and then I could make out the outline of a monster, maybe thirty inches. I threw the wooly bugger upstream and let it dead drift like a nymph along the bottom in the nearly still water. There wasn’t a sound, anywhere. My kayak was dead still. I stared at the end of my fly line a foot below the surface of the dark water, watching for the slightest pull, easing up on the rod ever so slightly to keep contact with the bottom. I wanted one of those carp so bad.
On my third or fourth cast using this method I felt like I was really putting the best drifts out there I could. Although I had no idea if it’s the type of fly or presentation a carp might go for. Intensely focused, I felt like I could feel in my fingertips the vibration of the fly tumbling across the gravel below. I waited for the strike. Waaaaiiiit. I could feel the temperature drop as the sun dipped behind the mountains. Three degrees, maybe five. I felt in tune with everything from my kayak to the fly rod, the line, leader, tippet, knot, down to the eyelet, down the hook all the way to the point. All my focus was on the unseen point of that hook five feet below the black surface.
Boom! I saw the fly line surge forward at the same instant I felt the bump through the line and into my fingertips. I brought the rod up fast and hard behind my head, finger tight on the fly line to set that point deep.
To really feel — not guess, but feel — an extremely subtle take of a fly that you cannot see, and to do it in a place where you have seen very large fish known for subtle takes, and to know when you bring that rod up that you were right and there is life on the end of the line, is pretty damned exciting. But it became immediately apparent that I had not caught my first carp on a fly. What I had caught, it turns out, with the hook set of a pro bass fisherman on a Saturday morning TV show, was about a seven inch smallmouth.
Only the resistance of five or six feet of water kept me from launching that smallie many yards in the air behind me. I instantly felt horrible for the little guy, I literally had to have dislocated his jaw with that hook set. When I got him in the boat and removed the fly, I said I was sorry, that I got a little carried away. He said nothing, which I took as tacit acceptance of my apology. I slipped him back in the water and he shot back to the hole from which he was so violently removed.
I reeled in my fly line, opened my last beer and watched the sun set over the bow of my kayak. Every now and then I’d glance over at the shadowy depths I had just fished. I was not expecting the opportunity and had no business attempting it, but I had fun toying with them. I’ll be back, soon, armed with a 7-weight next time. I think this might just be the pool. One day I’m going to pull one of those big ugly bastards out of that murky water. One day.
The Northern Snakehead Fish, subject of much discussion and debate among anglers and conservationists, seems here to stay. And while certainly invasive, the nightmare predicted by some who thought they would eat everything in the river doesn’t seem to be playing out. And in the middle section of the Potomac River, their numbers, size and fierce fight have attracted countless anglers. When my friend Kodi, who recently caught a 30-incher from his kayak, invited mutual friend and guide Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters and I to join him for some kayak largemouth bass and snakehead fishing, I had to go.
We went down the Maryland side to Mallows Bay and met at sunrise. At one point in the planning process I wondered if it would be easier for me to take the shorter drive down the Virginia side and just paddle across from Quantico. This picture shows what a stupid idea that was. The Potomac is wide where I live, maybe 800 yards or so. But down here, it’s got to be at least five miles across. I couldn’t understand how all the muddy water from the Upper Potomac from recent downpours wasn’t turning the Middle section just as brown. To quote the old Saturday Night Live skit about how the National Change Bank can make a profit just offering change for various denominations, “The answer? Volume.”
This is Harold, one of the best people you’ll ever meet. I met Harold many years ago when I first started fly fishing and booked a float with him on the North Branch of the Potomac. It’s worth noting that the farthest upstream and the farthest downstream I have fished the waters of the Potomac (over 200 miles between), I fished both with Harold.
The picture above looking out past the shipwreck across to Virginia is out in the main stem of the river. Mallows Bay looks more like this, with weeds and grasses providing lots of cover for bass and snakehead. It’s tidal here, so at low tide normally the fish that seek cover in the taller weeds you see here get forced back into a position where they are more exposed and, presumably, easier to catch. But the rain pushed the water levels up a bit. For whatever reason, the fishing was extremely tough.
My very first Snakehead encounter happened in a little cove. You see Harold’s kayak in the distance, he’s at the opening of the cove there. I was paddling quietly back there in maybe twelve inches of water, the bottom eleven of which was all grass or Hydrilla or whatever it is. I heard a noise to my left and saw large, black fins weaving and splashing between the tall weeds. Snakehead. I threw the popper tight against the weeds but could not entice him out. When I had exhausted that option, I decided to paddle over and just see if I could get a closer look. I drifted silently to the weeds, peering over the edge of my kayak, looking for movement. Then the water exploded next to me in a violent burst as the Snakehead bolted to safety. Not gonna lie here, it scared the shit out of me. But I immediately knew I just had to get one of those fish on my line!
The fishing did not improve. Harold caught a decent largemouth and hooked a Snakehead but lost it. And I missed a few bass and that was it. So we left Mallows Bay and headed to a pond that Kodi knew about which held a lot of Snakehead. It was a little tricky too, as you had to cast out beyond the lily pads, which left you very little room to strip in a top water fly before you had to pick it up and recast. But I got lucky and fooled this little one right as my fly reached the lily pads. People asked me how the fight was. He was overmatched with my 7-weight Sage, and I had to basically horse him over the pads, if he went down in there I never could have gotten him out. Even a small one, though, is pretty intimidating. Slimy, more beautiful in color and more hideous in form than I expected. They look equal parts ancient, evil and angry.
It was a tiring day of not catching many fish in the hot sun, but it is always a pleasure to be among good friends, and the challenge of catching fish who don’t want to be caught is a character builder. Sometimes the fish win. Regardless, if you’re only going to catch one fish all day, let it be something new and exciting!
When David Coffman was putting together our trip to southwest Virginia, including finding guide recommendations for a day of fishing on the New River, one name topped the list: Shawn Hash from Tangent Outfitters. The trip, a six-day odyssey through a beautiful and rugged portion of my beloved home state I had never set foot in before, brought us on the final day to Pembroke, VA where we met up with Shawn.
It was a beautiful day, but windy. I brought my 7-weight fly rod, which is a nice smallmouth rod in the wind, but I was not in the mood to fight it all day. We were there to relax and catch fish, and when the gusts are into the 35-40mph range, you leave the fly rod in the tube and grab a spinning rod. No apologies there, I love fly fishing but it was not the day for it.
I love a brown trout. My favorite fish ever was a medium sized Yellowstone Cutthroat. Brookies, rainbows, salmon, steelhead, stripers, shad, they’re all special, really. But I have a particular affection for the Smallmouth Bass. I learned to fly fish clumsily throwing wooly buggers to smallies in my home waters of the Potomac and the last couple miles of the Shenandoah before the two rivers meet as one. I’ve fished from banks, waded for them and caught them from a kayak. On one kayak trip not far from where we now live, I caught my personal best smallmouth, about a 17.5 incher that towed me around for a while before I got it in.
Well that personal best was bested by a beefy 18-incher within 40 yards of the ramp where we put in. A good day already. But it gets better. I have never seen so many consistently big, hard-fighting smallmouth. One after the other we were pulling in fish measuring 16 to 18 inches. Then I hooked into a particularly heavy one, and the moment Shawn netted it, he said, “citation!”
I have never caught an official citation, or trophy fish of any species. A smallmouth has to be 20 inches in length to qualify, and this one is about 20.5″. It weighed in at 4.75 lbs. To get a citation of one of my very favorite species of fish is extremely special to me. But amazingly, probably seven of the biggest ten smallmouth I have ever caught, were caught on this day out of the New River.
But remarkable things were happening for the guy in the back of the boat, too! David, editor of the VDGIF Outdoor Report and a lifelong outdoorsman, declared this the best day of fishing of his life! He was reeling in a “mediocre” smallmouth, maybe 12-13″, it was up on the surface close to the boat. I was watching it when what I presumed for an instant was a shark of some sort crashed up through the surface of the water after the smallie.
That night we celebrated with a great dinner at the nearby Palisades Restaurant, cigars and a few drinks. What a special day on the river, and I couldn’t be happier for David. I got my very special citation smallie, and he has a fish of a lifetime he will never forget. Wow.
That night we stayed in one of the riverfront cabins run by Tangent. This is the view from the porch. I didn’t think to get photos of the inside but I can’t recommend the cabins highly enough. Modern, comfortable, meticulously clean. Just a fantastic experience all around. I will absolutely return to the New River to have some fun with Tangent Outfitters!
It was a fun morning, fly fishing the home waters of the Potomac with a friend. A few smallmouth were caught, but for me it was mostly these pretty little sunfish. They’re small, but they fight hard. The Jack Russell Terriers of the fish world, we decided today. The only interesting photo I took today was this macro of a sunfish eye. You can see my silhouette in the reflection.